In the quest to look and feel healthier, it can be tempting to try every nutrition trend you see on social media or hear about from your friends. But, while you can sometimes achieve great results, experts are now warning that certain nutrition and weight-loss techniques could be causing significant side effects, including insomnia.
In particular, intermittent fasting – involving periods of fasting and eating – which is one of the biggest trends in food and wellbeing right now. The trend has, however, been identified as a major culprit for sleep issues, especially for women in high-stress jobs, and individuals with busy, travel-heavy lifestyles.
One expert who has noticed the issue is executive coach and sleep specialist Hayley Pedrick: “I am increasingly seeing clients who are trying intermittent or time-restrictive fasting come to me about sleep disruptions. There also seems to be a correlation between those who are most affected by diet-related insomnia and those living pressurised lives, from company CEOs to women who travel a lot for business.”
If you have ever spent your night tossing and turning, you’ll know how debilitating insomnia and disturbed sleep can be – leaving you feeling drained and tired throughout the day. Unfortunately, the condition is also prevalent in women, and if you are travelling a lot (for both work and pleasure), it’s likely to make your jet lag worse too.
So, what is it about intermittent fasting – a technique that’s often discussed for its energy-boosting and weight-loss prowess – which could actually be causing insomnia?
“Fasting is a physiological stressor on the body,” explains Pedrick, “because, on an evolutionary level, a lack of food is directly linked with a threat to our survival.” That means, while fasting lowers insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar, and can have a positive effect on reducing inflammation, it has no effect on, or can actually increase, the stress hormone cortisol. Stress is proven to have a negative impact on many aspects of a healthy lifestyle, including sleep and attention span.
One of the most common approaches to intermittent fasting is the type that delays your first meal of the day and sees you eat dinner early. For example, the 16/8 intermittent fasting technique (where you eat only during an 8-hour daily window) has gone viral on social media for its reported weight loss and mood improvement-benefits.
In Pedrick’s opinion, this type of fasting can be the worst culprit for insomnia, as it ultimately means you skip breakfast, and keep this fasting stress on your body throughout the day. Instead, it is what you eat for breakfast that is important – not just for better sleep, but improved concentration and weight management too.
Cereal and even porridge – which are high in carbohydrates and often sugar – aren’t the answer. Instead, she advocates for having “dinner for breakfast”, eating food that is high in protein and good fats. In good news for ‘avo-on-toast’ fans, that could include a plate of eggs and avocado, or the inclusion of lean meat, such as chicken or turkey.
If you’re not very hungry in the morning though, that can feel like a struggle, so Pedrick’s biggest recommendation is chia seed pudding. “Chia seeds are a well-researched health food, which are high in fibre, fatty acids, and antioxidants, as well as the amino acid-precursors for both serotonin (the happy hormone) and melatonin (which helps regulate sleep). Try mixing them with some coconut yoghurt, nut butter, and a selection of fruit, for a delicious, healthy breakfast option.”
Finally, insomnia-like symptoms are reported by the Sleep Foundation to be more common in the days leading up to your period – especially if you have noticeable PMS – due to shifts in hormone production during your cycle. For this reason, if you are still wedded to the results you get from intermittent fasting, but do notice disruptions in your sleep, try taking at least a short 3-5 day break each month. In fact, doing so may even maximise the technique’s effect, especially in terms of minimising brain fog and general fatigue.
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